MY DEAR SISTER,
Ever since the death of our dear mother, I have felt a deep interest in your welfare. And your being left, while young, in a measure dependent upon me, has increased my affection for you. You have now left my roof, to sojourn among strangers. You have little knowledge of the world, and your religious experience has been short. I trust, therefore, you will cordially receive a few hints from one whose fraternal affection has been strengthened by many peculiar circumstances, and who, for many years, has not ceased to remember you in his prayers.
Young Christians, when they first obtain peace and comfort in Christ, are prone to think the struggle over, the victory won. But nothing can be farther from the truth. They have but just enlisted under the banner of the great Captain of their salvation, in a warfare which will never cease till they shall have obtained the final victory over sin and death, and entered into the joy of their Lord. This mistake often leads them to be satisfied with what they have already experienced, and to cease that constant inward strife and earnestness, which they exercised while under conviction, before they found "joy and peace in believing." They see such a heavenly sweetness in divine things, that they think it impossible they should "lose the relish all their days." This begets self-confidence, and they trust in their own strength to keep where they are, instead of eagerly pressing forward, in the strength of Christ, after higher attainments. The consequence is, they soon lose their lively sense of divine things, backslide from God, and become cold and barren in their religious affections. A little child, when it first begins to walk, is safe while it keeps hold of the hand of its mother, or faithful nurse. But, when it begins to feel confident of its own strength, and lets go its hold, it soon totters and falls. So with the Christian. He is safe while he keeps a firm hold of Christ's hand. But the moment he attempts to walk alone, he stumbles and falls.
The Scriptures represent the grace of God in the heart, as a growing principle. It is compared to a mustard-seed, which is the least of all seeds. But, when it springs up, it rises and spreads its branches, till it becomes the greatest of all herbs. The beauty and appropriateness of this figure will not be appreciated, unless we take into consideration the luxuriant growth of plants in Eastern countries. The Jews have a fable of a mustard-tree whose branches were so extensive as to cover a tent. There are two things that no one would expect to see, in the growth of such a plant: (1.) To spring at once into full maturity. (2.) To become stationary in its growth, before it arrives at maturity. If it ceases to grow, it must wither away and die.
The spiritual reign of Christ in the heart is also compared to a little leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened. It was so little at first that it was said to be hid. It could not be seen. So grace, when first implanted in the heart, is often so little in degree, and so much buried up in remaining corruption, that it can scarcely be discovered at all. But the moment the leaven begins to work, it increases without ceasing, till the whole is leavened.
Again; Christ says, "the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water, springing up into everlasting life." When these words were uttered, our Lord was sitting upon a deep well, in conversation with the woman of Samaria. As his custom was, he drew instruction from the objects around him. He directed her attention away from the water which can only quench animal thirst, to that living water which refreshes the soul. But she, not understanding him, wished to know how he could obtain living water from a deep well, without anything to draw with. In order to show the superiority of the water of life, he told her that those who drank it should have it in them, constantly springing up of itself, as if the waters of the well should rise up and overflow, without being drawn. The very idea of a living spring seems to cut off the hope of backsliders. You remember the cold spring that used to flow from the rock, before our father's door. The severest drought never affected it, and in the coldest season of a northern winter it was never frozen. Oft, as I rose in the morning, when the chilling blasts whistled around our dwelling, and everything seemed sealed up with perpetual frost, the ice and snow would be smoking around the spring. Thus, like a steady stream, let your graces flow, unaffected by the drought or barrenness of others, melting the icy hearts around you.
This "living water," in the soul, is intended to represent the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. In the new birth, there is formed a holy union between the Spirit of God and the faculties of the soul, so that every correct feeling, with every good act, is produced by the Holy Spirit acting in unison with those faculties. Hence, our bodies are called the temple of the Holy Ghost, and he is said to dwell in us. What a solemn truth! What holy fear and carefulness ought we to feel continually; and how softly should we walk before the Lord of Hosts!
"The righteous," says David, "shall flourish like a palm-tree; he shall grow like a cedar in Lebanon." But if the cedar should cease to grow as soon as it springs up, it would never become a tree. It must wither and die. -- Again; it is said, "Ye shall go forth and grow up as calves of the stall." A healthy calf, that is fed in the stall, cannot but grow and thrive. And surely the Lord has furnished us, in his holy word, abundant food for our spiritual growth and nourishment. If the calf is diseased, or if he refuses to eat, he will pine away and die; and so with us. The apostle Paul speaks of growing up into Christ, in all things; and of increasing in the knowledge of God. By this he evidently means, that experimental knowledge of God in our hearts, by which we are changed into his image. The apostle Peter exhorts us to "grow in the grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ." Again, he directs us to feed upon the sincere and simple truths of the gospel, as the infant is nourished by its mother's milk, and to grow thereby. As conversion is called being "born again," the young convert is very properly compared to a "new-born babe." As a babe is least when first born, so the Christian, when first converted, has the least grace; unless, indeed, he becomes diseased, and pines away, like a sickly infant. And such is truly the deplorable case of the backslider.
The motives which urge us to seek and maintain an elevated standard of piety are the highest that can be presented to our minds. The glory of God requires it. This is the greatest possible good. It is the manifestation of the divine perfections to his intelligent creatures. This manifestation is made by discovering to them his works of creation, providence, and grace, and by impressing his moral image upon their hearts. In this their happiness consists. In promoting his own glory, therefore, God exercises the highest degree of disinterested benevolence. Nothing can add to his happiness; nothing can diminish it. If the whole creation were blotted out, and God were the only Being in the universe, he would still be perfectly glorious and happy in himself. There can be, therefore, no selfishness in his desiring his own glory. It is the good of the creature alone that is promoted by it. A desire to glorify God must, then, be the ruling principle of all your conduct, the moving spring of all your actions. But how is the glory of God promoted by your growth in grace?
1. It is manifested to yourself, by impressing his image upon your heart; and by giving you a spiritual discovery of the excellence, purity and loveliness, of his moral character.
2. It is manifested to others, so far as you maintain a holy life and conversation; for thereby the moral image of Christ is exhibited. The glory of Christ is manifested by the holy walk of his people, just as the glory of the sun appears by the reflected light of the moon.
3. The glory of God is promoted by making others acquainted with the exhaustless riches of free grace, and bringing them to Christ; for, by that means, they receive spiritual light to behold the beauty and glory of the divine perfections, and his image is stamped upon their souls. But your usefulness in this respect depends mainly upon the measure of grace you have in your own heart. The reason why many Christians do so little good in the world is, that they have so little piety. If you would be eminently useful, you must be eminently holy.
But, you may ask, "What is the standard at which I must aim?" I answer: The law of God is the only true standard of moral excellence; and you have the pattern of that law carried out in action, in the perfect life of our blessed Lord and Master. No standard short of this will answer the requirements of the word of God. "He that abideth in him, ought himself also so to walk, EVEN AS HE WALKED." All that we fall short of this is sin. There is no want of ability in the case, but what arises from our own voluntary wickedness of heart. Christ says that he came not to destroy the law, but to fulfil it. "We are not released from the obligation of perfect obedience; though grace has taken away the necessity of such obedience as the ground of our acceptance with God." The law is not made void, but established, by grace. We cannot be saved by our obedience; because we have already broken the law, and we cannot mend it. But, while we trust alone in Christ, independent of anything in ourselves, for justification before God, the signs or evidences of our faith must be found within us. There must be a new and holy principle in our hearts; and just as far as this principle prevails, so far it will show itself in obedience to the law of God. There is no resting-place, in the agonizing conflict, till we are "holy as God is holy." I do not say that Christians ever do become perfectly holy in this life. The contrary appears, from the testimony both of Scripture and experience, to be the universal fact. But this is the measure of obligation, and we should strive after it with all the earnestness of which we are capable.
We must not settle down contented with our attainments, while one sin remains unsubdued in our hearts. The Scriptures are full of this doctrine. The apostle Paul expresses far more earnestness of desire after higher attainments in the divine life than is ever felt by such Christians as have only a feeble and glimmering hope of entering the abodes of the blessed. "If by any means," says he, "I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead;" or that state of perfect holiness which the saints will have attained at the resurrection. And the kind of effort which he put forth to obtain the object of his desires is most forcibly described in the passage quoted at the beginning of this letter. In view of this standard, you will be able to see, in some measure, the exceeding sinfulness of sin; and it will drive you more entirely out of yourself to the cross of Christ. You will see the necessity of daily renewing your repentance, submission, and faith.
You see, from what the apostle says of his own experience, that high spiritual attainments are not to be expected without great labor and strife. True piety is indeed the work of the Holy Spirit; but the fact that God works in us to will and to do of his good pleasure, is made the ground of Paul's exhortation to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.
The attainments of eminent saints are too generally looked upon as out of the reach of common Christians. They seem to think God is not willing to give all his children the same measure of grace. But he could not have said more than he has in his holy word, to convince them to the contrary. "Open thy mouth wide, and I will fill it." Our Lord repeatedly assures us that God is more willing to give good things to those that ask him, than earthly parents are to give good gifts to their children. And whoever will read the lives of such eminent Christians as Edwards, Whitefield, Brainerd, Martyn, Payson, Mrs. Edwards, Mrs. Anthony, Mrs. Huntington, James B. Taylor, and many others which might be mentioned, -- and take notice of the means which they used, will not be surprised at their attainments. The Bible represents the Christian as in the constant exercise of holy affections; and we should never rest with anything short of this. Some of the persons I have mentioned did arrive at such a state of feeling. President Edwards enjoyed, for many years, the constant light of God's countenance, and habitual communion with him. And so did Mrs. Edwards, James B. Taylor, and many others.
She, for a long time, enjoyed, as she said, "THE RICHES OF FULL ASSURANCE." She felt "an uninterrupted and entire resignation to God, with respect to health or sickness, ease or pain, life or death; and an entire resignation of the lives of her nearest earthly friends." She also felt a "sweet peace and serenity of soul, without a cloud to interrupt it; a continual rejoicing in all the works of nature and Providence; a wonderful access to God by prayer, sensibly conversing with him, as much as if God were here on earth; frequent, plain, sensible, and immediate answers to prayer; all tears wiped away; all former troubles and sorrows of life forgotten, except sorrow for sin; doing everything for God's glory, with a continual and uninterrupted cheerfulness, peace, and joy." At the same time, she engaged in the common duties of life with great diligence, considering them as a part of the service of God; and, when done from this motive, she said they were as delightful as prayer itself. She also showed an "extreme anxiety to avoid every sin, and to discharge every moral obligation; she was most exemplary in the performance of every social and relative duty; exhibited great inoffensiveness of life and conversation; great meekness, benevolence, and gentleness of spirit; and avoided, with remarkable conscientiousness, all those things which she regarded as failings in her own character."
How did these persons arrive at this eminence in the Christian life? Although by free sovereign grace, yet it was by no miracle. If you will use the same means, you may attain the same end. In the early part of his Christian life, President Edwards says, -- "I felt a burning desire to be, in everything, a complete Christian, and conformed to the blessed image of Christ. I had an eager thirsting after progress in these things, which put me upon pursuing and pressing after them. It was my continual strife, day and night, and constant inquiry, how I should be more holy, and live more holily, and more becoming a child of God, and a disciple of Christ. I now sought an increase of grace and holiness, and a holy life, with much more earnestness than ever I sought grace before I had it. I used to be continually examining myself, and studying and contriving for likely ways and means, how I should live holily, with far greater diligence and earnestness than ever I pursued anything in my life; yet, with too great a dependence on my own strength -- which afterwards proved a great damage to me." "Mrs. Edwards had been long in an uncommon manner growing in grace, and rising, by very sensible degrees, to higher love to God, weanedness to the world, and mastery over sin and temptation, through great trials and conflicts, and long-continued struggling and fighting with sin, and earnest and constant prayer and labor in religion, and engagedness of mind in the use of all means. This growth had been attended, not only with a great increase of religious affections, but with a most visible alteration of outward behavior; particularly in living above the world, and in a greater degree of steadfastness and strength in the way of duty and self-denial; maintaining the Christian conflict under temptations, and conquering, from time to time, under great trials; persisting in an unmoved, untouched calm and rest, under the changes and accidents of time, such as seasons of extreme pain and apparent hazard of immediate death."
You will find accounts of similar trials and struggles in the lives of all eminent saints. This is what we may expect. It agrees with the Christian life, as described in God's word. It is "through much tribulation that we enter the kingdom of heaven." This is the way in which you must go, if you would ever enter there. You must make religion the great business of your life, to which everything else must give place. You must engage with your whole soul in the work, looking to the cross of Christ for strength against your spiritual enemies; and you will come off "conqueror at last," through him that hath loved us, and given himself for us.
Your affectionate Brother.